City gathers input for housing project for snow lot

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Whitefish is considering what an affordable housing development on the city’s snow lot might look like.

The city held the first of several planned meetings last week to begin gathering input from neighbors and the community on design options for a potential project on the lot. The city has said the goal is to create homes residents of Whitefish can afford with an area median income averaging around $40,000 to $53,400 per year.

Speaking to a group of about 30 people, City Councilor Katie Williams said the city is looking at options for how the lot could be developed.

“When we decided to pursue development we recognized the need to gather a lot of public input,” Williams said. “We’re here to capture your feedback. We want to ask what do you want to see in your backyard.”

Williams estimated that the city could look to implement designs garnered from the public process through applying for a planned unit development or subdivision likely between 2019 and 2021.

Addressing early concerns about the project being for high-density, Williams said though no concrete plans have been created the goal is to design a project to match the neighborhood.

“We’re not going to put a three-story, 60-unit development there,” she said. “We want to see what the neighborhood wants.”

Funding hasn’t been secured for such a development, but would likely come through a variety of sources potentially including grants, and the city expects to work with the Whitefish Housing Authority, which handles a number of affordable homeownership and rental programs.

The snow lot is at the corner of Columbia Avenue and Railway Street. It currently houses the city’s central recycling site.

During the meeting last week at City Hall, many neighbors and community members asked questions about the project. Some noted disappointment in losing the lot as open space, while other expressed concerns about how housing on the lot would impact the neighborhood in a number of ways including increased traffic and related safety concerns particularly during peak drive times as the property is near Whitefish Middle School. Still a few said they welcome the opportunity for more affordable housing in Whitefish.

Homeword, a nonprofit out of Missoula, has been tapped by the city as a consultant during the design process and is leading several meetings related to the process.

Andrea Davis, executive director of Homeword, said the issue of needing affordable housing isn’t unique to Whitefish.

“So many folks in Montana can’t afford rent,” she said. “Montana is the third highest state for the number of second homeowners.”

A housing needs study conducted in 2016 followed by a strategic housing plan completed the next year showed that roughly 900 residential units are needed to accommodate employee households through 2020 in Whitefish. About 56 percent of Whitefish’s workforce commutes into town for work, and 34 percent of those workers say they would prefer to live in Whitefish, according to the assessment. The housing plan identified the snow lot as a place to develop affordable housing.

Heather McMilin, housing development director for Homeword, said those involved want to hear what the priorities are for the neighborhood including safety concerns, character of the design and how they’d like to see housing placed on the site. She described subsequent meetings to include a walking tour of the site and a design charrette, which she said, is essentially a brainstorming session.

“The city wants to engage the community,” she said. “We want to know what scale of buildings you’d like to see there. Maybe single story to the south edge facing the homes across Railway, and two-story farther to the north.”

McMilin said right now the project is a “pile of clay” that needs shaping. She said those involved will listen to input and return with three design concepts for what the site could eventually look like.

“Before we even talk development we need to get the feel for the neighborhood,” she said. “What should fit there architecturally? This is a wonderful street — how do we maintain that character. Are we putting taller buildings to the north? Are we planting trees as a buffer to the north near the railroad.”

Council this spring rezoned 1.47 acres of the snow lot to high density multi-family residential.

Homeword is also working with the Whitefish Housing Authority on a separate proposed housing project on Edgewood Place.

Related to the snow lot, two community design charrette meetings are scheduled for later this month. Those are set for Wednesday, Sept. 19 and Thursday, Sept 20 at 5:30 p.m. in the City Hall lobby.

Once the design charrette meetings are complete and the consultants have completed their work, they are expected to present design options for the site. That presentation is set for Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 6 p.m. in the City Hall Council Chambers.

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